As the cold weather begins to blow in, it brings flu season with it. Influenza can affect dogs the same way it hits people—with fever, runny noses, lethargy, aches and pains—leaving your pet bewildered and feeling not so hot.
The question, then, remains: to vaccinate, or not to vaccinate your dogs to protect them from influenza?
It depends, says Kimberly May, DVM, the Director of Professional and Public Affairs at the American Veterinary Medical Association, or AVMA.
Canine influenza vaccine is classified as a lifestyle vaccine, as opposed to a core vaccine, like rabies, parvo and distemper. That means that like Bordetella vaccines, recommended when a pet is boarded in a kennel or at a daycare, canine influenza vaccines may be a good idea if a pet is regularly exposed to strange dogs—whose medical histories you can’t always ascertain—in close surroundings, like at the dog park.
The same would then go for dogs that are boarded, May says.
“We’re starting to see some boarding facilities strongly encouraging canine influenza vaccines,” May said. “We also recommend it for dogs doing dog shows, who are traveling and who are living in certain areas of the country where it is considered to be epidemic.”
In 2009 canine influenza was documented in about 30 states, including Colorado, Florida and Pennsylvania, as well as Washington, D.C.
Canine flu isn’t all that different from the flu in humans—pet owners can look out for lethargy, their dog or dogs not eating well, a fever, runny eyes and nose, coughing, and other “non-specific” signs of illness, May says.
In the early stages, it could be confused with kennel cough, but the flu will typically last longer.
The flu itself isn’t life threatening and requires simply supportive care to help a dog recover as quickly as possible and to feel comfortable while the symptoms still appear.
“You kind of have to let it run its course, but the key is keeping them feeling as good as possible and you want to prevent it from going to a pneumonia stage,” May explained.
If the flu develops into pneumonia, the situation can become much more serious and may require IV fluids and other forms of intensive therapy.
“A few dogs have died from it, but a lot of dogs recover and there is not a very high death rate,” May explained.
According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control, the canine influenza virus was first identified in 2004, when cases of an unknown respiratory illness in dogs were reported. It was later found that the illness was caused by the H3N8 equine influenza virus, known to exist in horses for more than 40 years.
The CDC estimates that while all dogs can be potentially at risk for the disease, not all dogs that contract the disease will show symptoms and about 80 percent of them will have a mild form of the flu.
Dogs can get tested for the flu at veterinary diagnostic centers and there is no known risk of dogs passing the disease on to humans—only on to other dogs.